SPRUCE PINE — The roster of candidates included in the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce 2020 Candidates’ Forum on Monday, Oct. 12 was considerably thinner than originally anticipated, but North Carolina State Senate District 47 candidates David Wheeler and Ralph Hise did their best to make the forum useful for area voters.
Hise and Wheeler were the lone participants in the forum, which was held on the online platform Zoom due to the ongoing pandemic.
Candidates from other races, including the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education, were invited but in all races, at least one candidate declined to meet virtually.
Republican Hise is seeking a sixth term as a state senator while Wheeler, the Democratic challenger, is challenging Hise for a second straight time. The two clashed in the 2018 senatorial race for District 47 with Hise winning by garnering 68.08 percent of votes.
Hise and Wheeler fielded questions for more than an hour as voters watched online via Facebook live. The forum was also streamed after the fact on the radio via WTOE and the meeting is still available to view on Facebook and on the Mitchell County Chamber website.
Questions covered the full political gamut with topics ranging from abortion to COVID-19 and plenty in between.
The forum was moderated by Bob Hensley. Both candidates answered every question and both candidates were given three rebuttal cards to use to respond to their opponent’s answer after the fact.
After two-minute introductions, the candidates kicked off the forum by being asked to grade North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 response.
“Governor Cooper has completely failed North Carolina,” Hise said, answering first. “When this began, he came out with these types of draconian shutdowns. Governor Cooper is continuing to destroy our economy each and every day.”
Hise also cited his disappointment with Cooper’s treatment of churches and church leaders during the initial pandemic shutdowns of mass gatherings.
Wheeler, on the other hand, responded by giving Cooper an “A-plus.”
“While the senator likes to beat up on somebody who isn’t here, I think Governor Cooper, taking all things into account, has done a great job,” he said. “I think the proof is in the pudding. We have the lowest COVID-19 death rate in the Southeast. That’s what the government is supposed to do— protect our citizens.”
Hise used his first rebuttal card to respond to Wheeler’s grade and pointed out that Cooper should have sought the approval of the Counsel of State but instead issued an executive order to usher in a state shutdown.
“Governor Cooper has overstepped any authority he’s been given by the General Assembly,” Hise said. “We are continuing each day to fight through legislation and the courts to make sure he stays within the authority he’s given and make sure he puts the interest of North Carolina first, not his political interest.”
Candidates were next asked about the 2019 sale of Mission Health, which includes Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine, to HCA Healthcare and how to increase healthcare access for the low income and underserved.
Hise acknowledged that the sale is troubling and introduces an unknown to local and regional health care but said two positives came from the sale— The Dogwood Health Trust and the guarantee of a 10-year opening of Blue Ridge Regional.
Wheeler used a rebuttal and said Hise “didn’t do anything to stop” the sale of Mission Health.
“I requested that you hold some town halls with your constituents and you did nothing,” Wheeler said. “You didn’t even call the executives and ask them tough questions. We need a senator that’s going to pound the table.”
Wheeler went on to add that he thinks Hise didn’t push hard on the issue of the sale in order to stay in the good graces of the Hospital Association.
“You didn’t do it, senator,” Wheeler said. “Why? Because they give you money. You wouldn’t want to make them mad, would you?”
Hise promptly held up rebuttal card number two.
“I guess this is a fundamental difference between how my opponent views the role of government and how I do,” Hise said. “Somehow, he believes it’s the role of a government official to orchestrate the sale of a private entity, that somehow we should control who owns every business. I believe it’s our role to create an environment where those businesses can be successful.”
Wheeler followed with his second rebuttal.
“You didn’t respond to the question,” he said. “Why didn’t you hold a town hall? Why? Because the Hospital Association is in your back pocket. They’re a big contributor of yours and they were for this. HCA is one of their biggest funders. I think it’s time we voted for people over corporate lobbyists.”
Hise and Wheeler went on to answer questions about broadband expansion and the state’s COVID-19 reopening plans before clashing over the issue of the biggest infrastructure needs in District 47.
Hise cited broadband availability and road infrastructure as the two biggest issues and Hise used his answer period to again question Hise’s progress as a senator.
“The senator admits he’s been in office for 10 years,” Wheeler said. “He admits there’s a problem with broadband, but what is he doing about it? Honestly, what is it you’re doing to push funds into the district? There are a lot of folks out there who have been hearing the same thing from you and over and over.
“You never do it. You just run for reelection every time and you’ve gerrymandered this district so you don’t really even have to run. I find it crazy that folks don’t put their self interest above just voting for you because you’re a Republican. Are you running against me or against Roy Cooper?”
Hise quickly responded.
“I will say that I intend to fight to make sure Roy Cooper is no longer governor of the state,” he said. “I’m not running for governor, but it is about what we do as a state, not about an individual seeking an office. I’m going to fight to make sure that the values of Mitchell County, which are conservative values, are heard across the entire state.”
Questions about growing jobs and opportunities, challenges the district faces and enviornmental protection followed before the two candidates engaged in a spirited discussion on abortion.
Wheeler said he has three kids and doesn’t’ believe in abortion.
“What has Senator Hise done in the last 10 years to limit abortions?,” Wheeler said. “Let’s be honest, his party wants the issue to divide us. What has he done? Abortions have not gone down in this district, they’ve gone up.”
Hise said he has fought for legislation that requires ultrasounds before abortions and pointed out that the North Carolina Right to Life group has endorsed him for several campaigns because of his beliefs on abortion.
“My opponent has no idea what my record is,” Hise siad. “I stand for the unborn.”
Wheeler responded and admitted that while he is “kind of a divisive character”, he doesn’t think abortion should divide the country.
Questions followed regarding education support, gun laws, job creation and a post-COVID-19 way of life.
Wheeler said that life after the pandemic will involve a lot of repair to small businesses and Hise said it’s time to reopen the state for the sake of the economy.
“A lot of small businesses are going to be in deep trouble,” Wheeler said. “Unlike my opponent, I don’t have a state job. He has two state jobs. He calls people who need government help welfare kings and queens.”
“Never said it,” Hise quickly fired back.
“I don’t live off the government, so I think helping small businesses is going to be a big deal,” Wheeler continued.
Hise said he hopes people have learned during the pandemic what they want from the government.
The forum concluded with closing statements from each candidate.
Hise, speaking first, said viewers of the forum saw “a very clear contrast” between himself and Wheeler.
“When you look at how Mitchell County and Western North Carolina feel about abortion, about goverment, about taxes, I think it’s clear that there is only one candidate here who represents Western North Carolina and its values,” Hise said. “There is only one candidate you heard here tonight who will stand and fight for the unborn and the born.”
Wheeler began his closing statement with three quick words— God, guns and gays.
“That’s all the senator ever talks about,” Wheeler said. “That’s all he has to talk about. That’s his entire platform. It excites his base. It brings folks out and divides us.”
Wheeler continued by saying he is a proud Christian.
“Gays,” Wheeler said. “They’re human beings. They’re people. They’re God’s children whether you like it or not. I know lots of gay folks. Every time you scream about bathroom bills, do you know how that feels to a gay person or a lesbian? That hurts.”
Wheeler closed by saying he would never let the government take anyone’s guns and agreed with Hise that viewers witnessed a forum full of contrast.
“You’re right, we have seen a contrast this evening,” Wheeler said. “I can be a little cantankerous but I love North Carolina. I’m not going anywhere and I’m a proud American. I’m a proud North Carolinean. I’d really like you to consider voting for David Wheeler, even though I’m not a Republican.”